Month: May 2011

Don’t Park Here

I was hoping someone would email me about how I could improve “dinosaur fiction.” Didn’t happen. What did happen: an email about the finer points of describing a character in a novel.

Character description is a delicate art, too often clumsily handled when tried deliberately. In some instances, the work beckons that you park on the description lot. That is, if your work beckons for failure.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

My name is Cindy Kennedy. My question is about descriptions. What’s the best way to describe your main character in your novel? I’ve seen a couple of ways to do it, but I’d like to know the best way.

You’re right. I’ve only seen a couple of ways myself. The wrong way and the right way. That’s your couple.

I want to see what you think of my main character description so far, if you don’t mind:

     Lynn sighed, wiping away a lock of her platinum blonde hair. Her sad blue eyes stared back at her from within the mirror. She never liked her round face nor her chubby hands. They weren’t pretty. She held them to her ruddy cheeks, trying to press her face downward and make it thinner, but it made her plump lips look like a fish puckering up for a kiss. It wouldn’t work like that, she found, unless she got a replacement set of lips as well. A single tear coursed down her cheek and to her stubby chin. She hated that too.

Let me know what you think. Thanks!

—Cindy Kennedy, Flint, MI.

You’re cheating here, Cindy. You’ve turned what should be a travesty into a plot point. The plot may turn out to be a travesty too, but my crystal ball’s been on the blink as of late. I’ll get back to you on this.

I won’t elaborate on the wrong way to describe characters, since countless others already put that on display for their audiences. As for the right way? Simple. Tell the story. But wait, didn’t you do just that here? If you’re advancing the plot with a description, that’s not ingenuity. That’s contrivance. Don’t do that.

Weak writers will pause to describe; strong writers will forge ahead with the narrative and work the descriptions into it.

For example, instead of this:

     “Robert had a lanky frame, something that didn’t work too well for him, being a pilot by trade. His flowering red hair made him quite a standout, and it gave him fits when he tried stuffing it into his cap.”

Go with something like this:

     “Robert strained to cram his lanky frame into the cockpit, a feat that still took some doing, even after a decade of piloting. After getting himself situated at last, he awkwardly stuffed his flowering red hair into his cap, an ordeal that took even more doing.”

You get the drift. In the first example, nothing “happens.” We’re in descriptive stasis. While you can glean the same details from both, you’ll find more vibrancy in the second example. And you can do that sort of thing without conjuring up some contrived way to describe your character.

We could go on and on here, touching on “description through dialogue” and its cheesiness, along with how everything I just said here doesn’t apply to description of scenery and setting.

Tell the story. The description will come. Be creative and work it in there on the fly. Keep that bus moving. Don’t stall your readers by insisting they know what someone looks like all at once. Do your job the right way, and we’ll get it.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and found on your nearest baby free range.

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Things to come.

Most writers fail right out of the gate because of deception. Bold-faced, ignorant deception. Deception in the form of irrational confidence, improper counsel, and irresponsible coaxing to continue. You’re not good because your friends and family tell you that you’re good. Step outside the bounds of blind comfort and seek out objectivity. If you don’t crave objective criticism, then you crave delusion.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Let’s uncork the mailbag and get rolling.

 

Hi, I’m Chad. I’ve been working on a fantasy novel and I’m [DELETED]

That makes you and everyone else. Unless you’re one of the ten or so writers who’ve ever done the genre justice, I recommend something entirely different. But since I’m being gracious this time, I’ll undelete your email and hope for the best.

. . . trying to add a new twist to make it original. It’s going to be told from the point of view of a dragon. The story is set in the kingdom of Anglear and he’res [sic] what I’ve done so far for the first chapter. I hope you like it:

           

            Kanwrath scrunched his scaly forehead, breathing in fresh rhinestone powder scattered within his large lair. He peered out from a hole within the cave, watching over the faraway kingdom of Anglear. His sharp ears picked up the sounds of war, soon to arrive on their unsuspecting gates.

            He didn’t try to bother with the affairs of men. They were shifty, prone to anger, and weak. But they were everywhere, and because of that, they thought themselves gods of the realm. They didn’t regard the life of plant, beast, or any of nature. The highest intellect was the human intellect, and everything else was only made to serve them, so they believed.

            Kanwrath knew better, though he did his best to remain humble. After all, a dragon centuries old was bound to have seen a fair share of life. He’d outlived generations of men. He’d outwitted their wisest, since he could retell as fact only what men of old would barely remember as myth.

            And here he saw the beginning of war.

 Chad Steele, Midland, Texas

Dragon’s-eye view? I’m fairly sure this has been done before. There’s nothing new under the sun or over the sun. Twists make things different, not original. If you’re looking for something original, again, I’m going to direct you to exit the fantasy stage. By the time you’ve created something original within the genre, it won’t be fantasy anymore. That’s an idea for you.

If you’re going to stick with the dragon’s-eye view, I’d suggest adding some element of suspense to his introduction. With that kind of opportunity, why not make something of that? Also, since you flew through setting the tone/story/stage, all anyone will get out of that is “dragon’s the main guy, something about humans being evil, and he’s a wise creature.” If there’s anything worth saying, take your time in saying it. The essence of that intro could have given you two decent chapters or three weak chapters.

While you’ve quickly assembled the conflict, you’ve practically given away the story. Let me guess, the dragon builds a relationship with one of the humans, finds himself helping them prepare for war, ends up betrayed due to misunderstanding before rising above his prejudice to usher in a victory, thus repairing human-dragon relations for the next fifty years or so, right? Right. It’s predictable. And if it’s predictable, it’s always too predictable.

Regarding the minutia of mechanics, this intro needs a few bolts tightened. “Peering” out of something and “watching over” something are contradictory notions. There’s also too much shifting between “hearing” this war and “seeing” it. The mention of “breathing powder” doesn’t carry the correct connotation here. Hint: this narrative shouldn’t imply that your dragon is doing drugs. Drugs are bad.

 

My name is Leslie, and I wanted to get your opinion on dialogue. My first novel is called A Holy Kiss. It’s a Young Adult Christian romance, set in Colonial America. I want to make it realistic as possible, but I don’t have a good handle on how to write dialogue. Do you have any good ideas? Thanks.

Leslie Broadstreet, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Wait, YA Christian romantic historical fiction? That’s like adding sugar to someone’s gas tank, then dumping sand and rocks in there, all while stuffing a bushel of apples in the car’s exhaust. In layman’s terms, it means “compounding the potential for catastrophic failure.” In layman’s layman’s terms, it means “don’t do that.”

I’ll give you a two-for-one deal: an example of dialogue that doubles as my advice against writing this novel. It’ll help answer your question and provide the added benefit of keeping you from making a huge mistake with this work:

“Is he joking?”

“No, he seemed pretty serious. He doesn’t normally joke about this sort of thing, does he?”

“Normally, maybe not. But this can’t be normal,” Dan answered somberly. He paced back and forth, agitated. “Kenneth’s been golfing over par with these submissions, but this? This is, well, I don’t even know what you’d call it. It’s like a triple birdie.”

“You mean triple bogey?” asked Dawn, a bit carefully, hoping not to offend her already offended manager.

“Bogey, yes. Thank you. In fact, I’d say it’s a quadruple bogey, if you can do such a thing.”

“And you can.”

“Just because Kenneth can doesn’t mean he should. What was he thinking here? Has he completely lost touch with the whole ‘market’ concept? Isn’t marketing something I pay him for?”

“Dan,” Dawn calmly interjected, “I’m sure there’s some niche or even a subniche that’d scoop this right up. It’d be enough to recoup the initial cost.” She tried to reassure her financially overconscious overseer, but she couldn’t infuse that reassurance with any hint of confidence.

“Really? This is colonial America we’re talking about, not something that teenagers would relate to.”

“Were you into historical fiction in high school?”

“No.”

“Did you know anyone who was?”

“Only the weird ones.”

“Well, Dan, there you go. That’s our audience.”

“Oh, not even close,” Dan retorted. “We’re talking people who read historical fiction, and not just people. Teenagers. Teenagers who read? That’s rare enough. What are the odds we find a teenager who reads? One in a hundred? What about one who reads historical fiction? One in a thousand, if that? Probably more if we’re talking the Colonial era. Wasn’t exactly the most exciting time to live through, much less write about. So now we’re up to one in ten thousand at best.”

“That’s still not bad,” said Dawn, shrugging.

“Not bad? We’re not done. Teenagers who read historical Christian fiction? We’re talking one in, oh, I don’t know, fifty thousand? One hundred thousand? When we toss in the romance elements, now we’re talking one in a million at least. At least.”

“But Dan, that still gives you a niche, right? I don’t see why you’re so upset.”

“A niche? Yeah, that’d be a niche of about three-hundred and sixty readers in the U.S. Not even one for every day of the year.”

A long pause.

“Well then. I see why you’re so upset,” Dawn conceded.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and loathed by infants.